“Become My Son”: A South African Mother’s Response to the Man Who Murdered Both Her Son and Her Husband
After Apartheid ended in South Africa, a white police officer named Mr. Van der Boek was put on trial. The court found that he had come to a woman’s home, shot her son at point-blank range, and then burned the young man’s body on a fire while he and his officers partied nearby. The woman’s husband was killed by the same men, and his body also was burned.
Unfathomable Cruelty and Indignity
I can’t fathom the source or the energy needed to fuel such cruelty. But more unfathomable is the surviving woman’s response (the mother of the son and wife to the husband murdered and burned). What must she have thought and felt as she sat in the court room being burdened and re-traumatized by evidence?
A member of the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission turned to her and asked, “So, what do you want? How should justice be done for this man?”
How is Justice to be done?
That’s the right question, isn’t it? What is justice; how can it be achieved; how does it look different from mere retribution and punishment? But the judge asked “how should justice be done for this man?” – not – “for this surviving woman.”
What would this wife & mother say in the face of such murderous cruelty that further caused indignity to her husband’s and son’s remains?
“I want three things,” the woman said confidently:
“I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial. My husband and son were my only family.”
Become My Son!?
“I want, secondly, for Mr. Van der Boek to become my son. I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have.”
This is truly a breathtaking request. We can finish her sentence starting with “I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I . . .” – fill in the blank!
- So I can get him to feel the crushing poverty I live with.
- So I can have him feel the full void of my loss with no husband or son.
- So I can have him feel every distrusting eye scrutinize him as the minority in our community.
But no; she finishes her request with “so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have.” How much love does she still have?
And I could not find if Mr. Van der Boek could possibly receive such love. Did he come out, as she asked, twice a month to spend the day with her for the sole purpose of receiving what ever love she may still possess?
“And finally, I would like Mr. Van der Boek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. Van der Boek in my arms, embrace him, and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”
From Michael Wakely, Can It Be True? A Personal Pilgrimage through Faith and Doubt.
Forgiveness cannot be demanded
I am not naive enough to think that it’s all good in South Africa, or that forgiveness should be given because it is expected, or that forgiveness should be given because it does as much to release the forgiver as it does the forgiven (for a contrasting view, read “You may free apartheid killers but you can’t force victims to forgive“). But as the woman in the above noted story alluded, forgiveness is possible when we recognize our own status as forgiven people.
This blog is reposted with permission from R.H. (Rusty) Foerger.
Visit his website: More Enigma Than Dogma
Related blogs by Rusty Foerger:
Forgiveness: 3 Misconceptions
When I began 30 years ago to apply social scientific methods to the ancient moral virtue of forgiveness, my students and I ran into a rather large problem. People were afraid to forgive. When we probed this fear, we began to realize a common theme across the fearful. They equated forgiving with automatically and dutifully going back into abusive situations. “My spouse denigrates me. If I forgive, then I go back for more……but I do not want to go back for more. Thus, I will not forgive.”
It took us a while, but eventually we saw that to forgive is not the same as to reconcile. Forgiveness, as with justice and patience and kindness, is a virtue, originating inside people as an insight (I can be good to those who are not good to me) and as a feeling of empathy and compassion for the offending other, not because of the offense but in spite of it. Forgiving behaviors flow from the insight and compassion.
Reconciliation, on the other hand, is a behavioral negotiation strategy in which two or more people come together again in mutual trust. You can forgive and not trust a person in their weak areas (you do not lend money to the compulsive gambler even though you can try to be good to the person in other ways as a sign of forgiving). You can forgive and not reconcile at all if the other remains abusive.
Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. This insight opened the door for social scientific work on forgiveness for us because to forgive is not to create unsafe situations for the forgiver.
We now turn to two, what I call, Modern Misconceptions, the latest critiques of forgiveness, particularly Forgiveness Therapy, a new form of psychotherapy which emerged from the research journey begun three decades ago (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). These Modern Misconceptions are quite different from the early misconception because they target forgiveness itself—not fear—and are highly critical of this potentially life-changing virtue, even if practiced well and with patience.
Modern Misconception 1 goes something like this: You who advocate for Forgiveness Therapy or Forgiveness Education with students (Enright, Rhody, Litts, & Klatt, 2014) ask way too much of forgivers. You ask them to bear the burden of their own healing and that is not fair. They already have been hurt so why ask them now to struggle after forgiveness?
Two burdens are theirs: the original offense and now Forgiveness Therapy. Yet, as with the equating of forgiveness with reconciliation, this Modern Misconception has an error embedded within it. It is not at all an added and unnecessary burden to help a person, whose heart is broken, to forgive.
Take a physical analogy to make the point clear. Suppose James pushes Jeremy to the ground, dislocating his shoulder. Is it unwise now to ask Jeremy to enter into a rehabilitation process to repair the shoulder? Is it an added burden we should never ask because he is hurting? It would seem that the unfairness lies, not in the encouraging of medical treatment, but the reverse—discouraging it because it will be rigorous and painful.
Is it not the same with Forgiveness Therapy for those who choose it? The heart is broken, yes, because of the original unfairness. If the person chooses rehab of the heart—Forgiveness Therapy—isn’t this repair good even though rigorous and painful? The Modern Misconception might keep people from rehab of the heart and so it needs to be challenged.
Modern Misconception 2 has emerged from my giving 13 invited forgiveness talks in an area of the world plagued by a land dispute that is disrupting individual, family, community, and political peace. The misconception unfolds this way: You say that forgiveness is good, but how will it get my land back? It will not get my land back. Therefore, forgiveness is weak and ineffective. I will have nothing to do with it.
My response is to give a multiple choice question to the skeptic. Which of these two would you rather have:
- You live for the rest of your life without getting your land back and you also live with a deep anger that disrupts your inner life and the life of those around you; or,
- You live for the rest of your life without getting your land back and you are free of the deep anger that disrupts you, your loved ones, and your community?
Which do you choose? In every case across the 13 lectures, the skeptic ends up choosing answer (B), living without the debilitating resentment. It is at that point that the person is willing to explore the subtleties of forgiveness without dismissing it. Such exploration could, in the long run, save lives from psychological devastation. The error in Modern Misconception 2 occurs when the person focuses exclusively on the original problem (land dispute) without even realizing that a second, just as serious, problem has emerged because of the land dispute—resentment entrenched in the heart. Forgiveness can cure this second problem while not being able to solve the original problem. Without seeing this, the person rejects forgiveness as weak.
Misconceptions…..they can drive a person away from forgiveness or become a stimulus for more thoroughly exploring what forgiveness has to offer. Left unexplored, the Modern Misconceptions could leave some people without a path of healing that could have been theirs……if only they had explored more deeply.
Posted in Psychology Today February 18, 2017
- Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Enright, R.D. , Rhody, M., Litts, B., & Klatt. J.S. (2014). Piloting forgiveness education in a divided community: Comparing electronic pen-pal and journaling activities across two groups of youth. Journal of Moral Education, 43, 1-17.
A True Story of Rape, Forgiveness and Reconciliation
If someone told you that a rape survivor was writing a book together with the man who raped her, you probably wouldn’t believe them.
But that’s exactly what Thordis Elva has done with her former high school boyfriend who raped her when she was barely 16-years-old after a school Christmas party in Elva’s hometown of Reykjavík, Iceland.
Her boyfriend was an 18-year-old exchange student from Australia, Tom Stranger, who said he felt entitled to have sex with Elva despite her being so drunk that people at the party had suggested they call an ambulance. Stranger instead took Elva to her own home where he spent two hours accosting her as she faded in and out of consciousness.
The crime was never reported.
Elva said that at the time she wasn’t clear as to what rape actually was and that Stranger had returned to Australia a few days later after ending the relationship.
“I hadn’t told anyone because I harbored shame and self blame for being drunk and not being in a situation where I was in control” Elva says. “That slowed down my ability to recover and fully face what had happened.”
The two went their separate ways after that sinister event until nine years later when Elva contacted her rapist by email. Still struggling with the trauma of the rape, and “on the brink of a nervous breakdown,” Elva felt she needed to be eye-to-eye with her attacker in a bid to come to terms with what happened to her. And to her surprise, he replied with a confession and an offer of “whatever I can do.”
From that initial contact an extraordinary dialogue between rape victim and rapist started–beginning a raw, painful healing process documented in the book they co-authored South of Forgiveness: A True Story of Rape and Responsibility.
The book immediately became controversial not only because Stranger had actually raped Elva 16 years earlier and had only recently taken responsibility for it, but because Elva would eventually forgive herself and her attacker.
“It [forgiveness] is an extremely misunderstood concept,” according to Elva. “People somehow think you are giving the perpetrator something when you forgive, but in my view, it is the complete polar opposite.”
“Forgiving was for me so that I could let go of the self-blame and shame that I had wrongfully shouldered, that were corroding me and basically ruining my life.”
Creating additional controversy is the fact that the victim and the culprit are travelling the world together to discuss the very serious topic of rape. Together, they gave a TED talk that summarized a 20-year long process, whereby Stranger eventually shouldered responsibility for his actions and the way those actions impacted their lives. It was viewed nearly 2 million times in the first week and more than 4.3 million times since being posted. You can watch their TED talk here. The TED talk was presented in San Francisco, CA for the TEDWomen 2016 conference.
Stranger, it should be noted, is not benefiting from his work with Elva. “Any profits that I receive will be going towards a women’s’ charity in Reykjavík,” Stranger told an interviewer. “I realize how disrespectful and contemptuous it would be for me to benefit my bank balance or anything else.”
South of Forgiveness is an unprecedented collaboration between a survivor and a perpetrator, each equally committed to exploring the darkest moment of their lives. It is a true story about being bent but not broken, of facing fear with courage, and of finding hope even in the most wounded of places. (Source: South of Forgiveness website)
⇒ Is forgiveness a virtue? – Malay Mail Online, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia
⇒ Can I forgive the man who raped me? – The Observer/The Guardian, London, UK
⇒ South of Forgiveness – Forgiving rape – IceNews, Reykjavik,
⇒ Rape victim and rapist reconcile, co-author a book and give talks – IceNews, Reykjavik, Iceland
⇒ Could you forgive a rapist? A 17-year story of reconciliation – Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australia
⇒ Our story of rape and reconciliation – TED Talks (video: 19:07), New York, NY
⇒ A Q&A with Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger – Ted Talks, New York, NY
⇒ South of Forgiveness – Promotional Website, Stockholm, Sweden
Please tell us what you think of this story, of the campaign being conducted by Elva and Stranger, and of Elva’s willingness and ability to forgive herself and her attacker. Could you forgive someone who raped you? Click on the “Leave a comment” button at the top of this story or use the “Leave a reply” box below to let us know what you think. Thank you. We appreciate your thoughts and your feedback.
Does reconciliation require trust?
Reconciliation does require trust. If the other person has remorse (an inner sorrow for what he or she did), shows repentance (uses language to express that inner sorrow), and tries for recompense as best as he or she can under the circumstances, then trust can begin to build in you.